alienorum peccatorum participes efficiantur

“That’s all?” a penitent, whose confession I had just heard, once said when I gave him his penance. I immediately thought of a passage of the Council of Trent’s Decree on Penance:

The priests of the Lord must therefore, so far as reason and prudence suggest, impose salutary and suitable satisfactions, in keeping with the nature of the crimes and the ability of the penitents; otherwise, if they should connive at sins and deal too leniently with penitents, imposing certain very light works for very grave offenses, they might become partakers in the sins of others.

There are a number of difficulties in applying this passage. The most serious is that a severe penance (especially given how rarely such penances are given nowadays) can be discouraging to the penitent. St Alphonsus discusses the problem at length:

The confessor should give a penance that he considers will further the penitent’s chances at salvation, that is, one that is adapted to his particular condition and one that he judges will be carried out. He should take note that even though Trent demands a penance corresponding to the gravity of the sins, still he may, for a just cause, lessen the penance for a number of reasons. For instance […] when the confessor prudently judges that a penance which corresponds to the sins will not be fulfilled. We know that Trent teaches that penance and sins should correspond to each other, but we say that besides this the penance should correspond to the penitent’s capability. In this way, the penance will be a help and not a hindrance to the penitent’ s salvation. When it happens that the penance is neither helpful to his salvation nor fitted to his particular strength or weakness, then the penance is a poison and not a remedy. And yet in this sacrament, amendment of one’s life is the end intended, rather than making all the satisfaction due for sin. The Ritual says this very thing when it tells the confessor to have “the disposition of the penitent” in mind. […] Gerson, Cajetan, and St. Antoninus all teach that the confessor should impose a penance which he prudently thinks the penitent will be able to handle, and which he will readily accept. If the penitent maintains that a penance is too much for him in his weak condition, then, as the saint points out, “No matter how much he has sinned, he should not be refused absolution, lest he despair.” He goes on to say that it is enough in a case like this, to impose the general penance using the words of the Ritual quidquid boni feceris etc.

The words quidquid boni feceris, to which St, Alphonsus alludes, are from a prayer said after absolution:

May the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of the blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the good you do and the suffering you endure, gain for you the remission of your sins, increase of grace, and the reward of everlasting life.

This prayer applies a great deal more to the satisfaction of the temporal punishment of sin than the actual penance imposed.

The simplest solution to the difficulty raised by Trent, however, is the one used by St. Leopold Mandić. Fr. Antonio Sicari describes Mandić’s solution as follows:

I recall […] St. Leopold Mandić, closed for years and years in his confessional, overwhelmed by the sins poured upon him by the penitents. Derided by some because he made all innocent, giving absolution with merciful generosity, and then passed long nights in expiation, trembling with fear for God’s judgement. He had, in fact, sent away the most fragile sinners offering himself in their place: “I will make the penitence for you, I will pray…”

In a sense Mandić did become what Trent calls a “partaker in the sins of others,” but in quite a different sense than the one condemned.

“The confessor should never worry about those waiting in line for confessions”


From a translation of selections from the Praxis Confessarii of St Alphonsus Liguori:

To be able to prescribe the right remedy to his penitent’s spiritual sickness, the confessor must know its origin and cause. Some confessors ask for nothing more than the number and the species of the sins. As soon as they are convinced that the penitent is disposed, they send him away almost without a word.

A good confessor acts very differently. First he investigates to find out how the sickness started and how grave it has become. He asks if there is a habit of sin, if there are occasions – some time or place or persons or circumstances that provoke him to sin. In this way, he can do a better job of correcting the penitent, of disposing him for absolution, and of giving him profitable remedies for correcting his sins.

Next he makes the pertinent observations. Even though he should treat his penitents as a loving father, still as a doctor he is bound, when it is necessary, to warn and to correct them. This is especially necessary in the case of the very sinful who seldom come to confession. He should warn and correct everyone who needs it, without respect of persons. It makes no difference whether he be priest or prelate, governor or elite, as long as he has confessed with little evidence of sorrow. Pope Benedict XIV compares the words of the confessor to those of the preacher: “The confessor’s warnings are much more effective than those of the preacher, for he knows the case in question and the preacher does not. For this reason, he can make more pertinent warnings and prescribe remedies which fit this particular sin.”

The confessor should never worry about the ones waiting in line for confessions. As St. Francis Xavier said, it is better to hear a few confessions well than to hear many which bear little fruit. Confessors sin if they come across an indisposed penitent and immediately tell him to leave the confessional, for fear of wasting time with him. Learned theologians have said that, when a penitent comes indisposed, the confessor is obliged as far as possible to dispose him for absolution. To do this, he could tell the penitent, for example, how much his sin’s have offended God, how great is his danger of being condemned to hell, and so forth. And it makes little difference if others are waiting or even if they leave without going to confession, for the confessor is responsible not for them, but for the one who is here and now in the confessional.

The confessor is also obliged to instruct the penitent if he is culpably ignorant of any point of natural or positive law. If he is inculpably ignorant, it depends. If he is inculpably ignorant of something necessary for salvation, then the confessor is obliged to instruct him. If he is inculpably ignorant of some other matter (of which he can be ignorant) – even something of the divine law, the confessor should prudently decide whether the instruction will be profitable for the penitent. If it will not be profitable, he should not make the correction, but rather leave him in good faith. The reason is: the danger of formal sin is a much more serious thing than material sin. God punishes formal sin, for that alone is what offends Him. This I proved more sufficiently in my Moral Theology. […]

When the penitent’s ignorance redounds to the harm of the common good. The confessor is a defender of the good of society and he is bound to prefer the public good to the private good of his penitent, even when he realizes that the correction will be useless. Consequently, he must always instruct rulers, confessors, prelates, and parish priests who are neglecting their obligations, because ignorance in these men – even if it is invincible – will always hurt society. People will see what they are doing and consider it all right to imitate them.

The Rule of Reason

In the letter embedded above Bl. Columba Marmion says exactly what I’ve tried to say to certain “enthusiastic” penitents in the confessional. It is dangerous to think that one is being guided by the Holy Spirit when one is in fact just being guided by one’s own fancy; man was meant to be ruled by reason enlightened by faith:

You must begin at the foundation of your soul, and try to accustom yourself to follow reason enlightened by faith, and no longer be the slave of your impressions. What distinguishes man from the animal is, that the animal, having no higher principle of action than sense, follows his impressions alone; whereas man has a spiritual principle which he should alone follow, using his senses, his impressions; but without being swept along by them.

Ronald Knox’s strange masterpiece Enthusiasm is a study of religious movements which give primacy to “impressions”.

Friedrich Wessely on Confession IV (4)


(See: introductory poststatic page)

(Examination of Conscience continued:)

The Invocation of the Holy Spirit

All instructions on Confession agree that one ought to begin the examination of conscience by calling the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete to one’s aid. This helps us to see the vital point that we must examine our consciences with our hearts full of faith. We must try to look on ourselves as it were with God’s eyes. God knows the graces that He has abundantly sowed in our hearts that they might bear fruit, that they might conform us every more clearly to the image of His Son. The Son of God desires to be able to recognize in us friends and brothers. The Holy Spirit has filled us with His gifts that in our daily work we might ever more become instruments of His love. If one realizes this then one will see how far short of the ideal one falls. Even if one confesses regularly one will see how numerous were the sins of omissions one committed, how many graces one squandered, how bitterly (in human terms) one’s conduct must have disappointed God. The saints wept bitter tears over their sinfulness. They did not do so out of unhealthy exaggeration, but out of a deep knowledge of their souls, a bright light helped them to see their own unworthiness. If we ask Him, God will give this light to us as well.

(to be continued)

Friedrich Wessely on Confession IV (3)

(See: introductory poststatic page)

(Examination of Conscience continued:)

If we see that our attitude toward Confession is lukewarm, than we should ask ourselves whether there is any part of our lives in which we are really zealous out of love of God. We shall find to our astonishment that we nowhere have true zeal, or that if there is some work to which we devote ourselves with all our strength, that our motive in it is not purely supernatural. Thus we find that a lukewarm attitude towards Confession is a sign that we are generally lukewarm in our spiritual lives. This can be a wake up call to us. And if we heed this call we shall find that the converse is also true: as soon as we arise and attempt some work purely out of love of God we shall find the desire for the purification of the Sacrament of Confession awake again in our hearts. Continue reading

Friedrich Wessely on Confession IV (2)

(See: introductory poststatic page)

2. Proximate Preparation

a) Examination of Conscience

General Remarks

For many persons examining their conscience is almost a form of torture. They are possessed by the fear that they will not detect all their faults, or they tie their minds into knots trying to weigh the exact degree of gravity of each sin. They do not think themselves able to make a good Confession unless they have attained perfect clarity about their interior state. But what is the point of all this worry? Continue reading

Friedrich Wessely on Confession III

(See: introductory poststatic page)


In order to receive the Sacrament of Penance fruitfully it is necessary to fulfill carefully all that belongs to the essence of the Sacrament as well as those things that have always been recommended by the teaching of the Church. These consist principally in a good preparation, the confession of one’s sins, and the fulfillment of one’s penance.

Preparation for confession can be further divided into proximate preparation (preparation in the strict sense) and remote preparation.

Proximate preparation includes the examination of conscience, which ought to begin with an invocation of the Holy Spirit; contrition for sins committed; and finally the resolution not to commit those sins again and to convert one’s life.

Remote preparation includes everything that can be done by the penitent to give himself comprehensive knowledge of his sins, to deepen his contrition, and to strengthen his resolution.

It is necessary to fulfill these precepts and councils carefully in order to receive the Sacrament of Penance fruitfully. But when we say that care is necessary we do not mean that we ought to be filled with worry and fear. We must rather be confident in the knowledge that the Church, like a good mother, teaches us these things in order that we might progress toward God as quickly as possible, that our souls might expand and develop ever more richly, and that the peace of God might entirely fill our hearts.

We begin with a consideration of the preparation for Confession.

Friedrich Wessely on Confession I

I have begun a translation of Friedrich’s Wessely’s pamphlet on Confession which I shall be using for a retreat that I am to give soon. Wessely’s pamphlet was given to me by my own confessor, and I have found it helpful indeed. I shall be posting each chapter separately as well as adding them to a static page.

The Rev. Friedrich Wessely (1901-1970) was a priest of the Archdiocese of Vienna and professor for Spirituality at the University of Vienna. He brought the Legion of Mary to Austria and was and inspired the founding of the Vienna Oratory.

Wessely begins his pamphlet on Confession by noting that while many are convinced of the efficacy of this Sacrament in leading us toward holiness, nevertheless their actual experience of frequent Confession is that they seem to make little or no progress; at each Confession they confess the same sins, and they cannot see that their last Confession has made them any holier. Continue reading